Although Eli Bowen worked as an exhibit performer in museums, sideshows, and traveling circuses for more than five decades, relatively little is known about his life.
Bowen was born in Richland County, Ohio, on October 14, 1842. One of eight children born to Robert and Sarah Bowen, Eli Bowen had phocomelia, a rare congenital condition in which his feet were attached to nearly absent legs, making him appear "legless." The young child learned to move about by walking on his hands, ultimately employing wooden blocks held in his hands to elevate his body. It is likely that Bowen helped out on the family farm and by early adulthood he had developed exceptional upper-body strength.
Although it is often reported that Bowen began working at Major Brown's Coliseum at the age of 13, census records show that he lived with his parents and attended school in 1860. It was most likely his father's death in 1865 that prompted his entry into the museum and carnival business. Beginning with the 1870 census, Bowen listed his profession as "showman." Bowen used his strength to develop an acrobatics and tumbling routine, enhancing his exhibit.
As with many "freaks" who worked the museum and carnival circuits in the 19th century, inflated titles, such as "Captain Eli Bowen" and "Master Eli Bowen," were used to market Bowen as a dignified yet amusing attraction. In his numerous carte de visites, or visiting cards that he handed out, Bowen is dressed in suits, frequently with a sash to make him appear regal. Bowen was also known as "The Handsomest Man in Showbiz," "The Wondrous Man with Feet and No Legs," and "The Legless Acrobat." Bowen worked in most of the major museums and traveling shows of the day, including P. T. Barnum's circus. In the late 1890s Bowen allegedly teamed up with Charles Tripp (the "armless wonder") for a popular tandem bicycle act in which Tripp would pedal and Bowen would steer.
Bowen married Martha Haines (also known as Mattie Haight) in 1872 and the couple had four sons. His wife and children were frequently featured with him in visiting cards produced and sold for profit. In part, the curiosity of Bowen was the fact that he married a "normal" wife and had four "normal" children. This fact was repeatedly used in printed publicity materials as well, such as the pamphlet called "The Wonder of the Wide, Wide World: The True History of Mr. Eli Bowen" published in 1880. In the context of a society increasingly attracted to eugenics, a pseudoscience that categorized people by their genetic "worth," Americans expressed deep concerns about the intimate relationships and childbearing of people with disabilities. It appears that Bowen and his handlers were quick to capitalize on these anxieties but also potentially buffered direct intervention of the family by displaying them as freaks.
Bowen continued to work in the industry right up to his death. By most accounts Bowen was financially successful enough to retire and so it appears he voluntarily remained in his profession. Bowen died of pleurisy on May 4, 1924, while working for Dreamland Circus Sideshow in Coney Island, New York. He is buried in Lowell Lake County, Indiana.